This past week, Edmonton City Council has been debating how to most effectively keep our roads, sidewalks, and trails safe during the winter. In order to effectively remove snow, ice, and other hazardous elements, the City must combine labour with technology to find the best way to maintain our roads in a timely and consistent manner. In the past, the City of Edmonton has used salt as a means to melt ice on the roads and increase traction. This past year, administration started a pilot project using a substance called calcium chloride, in conjunction with salt, to maintain the roads. While the city has been using calcium chloride for many years, the increased use of calcium chloride and salt has garnered significant media and community attention, as many Edmontonians have noticed a change on the roads.
It is critical that the City is consistently investigating on the best methods and technologies to keep our roads, sidewalks, and trails safe. This service is governed by the City of Edmonton’s Snow and Ice Control Policy, which was last updated 2011. At this time, the City shifted from 10cm windrows, to 5cm windrows in our communities. A windrow is a pile of snow on the side of road that was created by snow plowing equipment. This change was made after an extensive community engagement process where residents compared the status quo of 10cm to 5cm as well as an option to go right to bare pavement. Based on the cost to go to bare pavement, the support was to move to a 5cm windrow.
Since 2011 there have been a few minor revisions, and a few years ago we started the process to update our Snow and Ice Control Policy. This update was also based on feedback. People would often ask, “Why is the Henday also so clear of snow yet the rest of the roads in the city aren’t?” or “The roads in (insert almost any Eastern Canadian city) seem so much better, is there anything we can learn from them?” Those are very reasonable questions that helped begin the update to the policy.
Similar to 2011, city staff engaged various groups to understand what service level people expect when it comes to snow removal on our roads, sidewalks, and trails. As noted above, a common request has been to get to bare pavement particularly on our arterial roads more quickly than we have in the past. Our current policy is to clear the snow off our arterial roads within 48 hours of the end of the snowfall. Many other cities are able to achieve this within 12 hours. The way other cities have achieved this is by using a much higher volume of salt and calcium chloride on their roads than what Edmonton has been using. We have always been using both salt and calcium chloride but not to the same level as you see in other cities – including other Alberta cities like Calgary. It should also be noted that calcium chloride has been used on the Henday and the QE2 highway for many years to keep snow and ice off those roads. Those are Provincial roads so they are maintained by the Province.
In advance of any permanent changes to our Snow and Ice Control Policy, a decision was made to pilot best practices from other Canadian municipalities. This involved shifting the use of sand, which is expensive for the city and is not very effective in roads where speeds exceed 50km/h, to additional salt and additional calcium chloride. Because many other cities already use far more salt and calcium chloride than we were using for the pilot, the city was primarily relying on studies from other jurisdictions to understand the impact of calcium chloride.
So what was the result of the Edmonton pilot? While results showed that traction did improve on roads, sidewalks, and trails – concerns were raised from individuals and some industry partners about the impact to personal vehicles, garbage pads, landscaping, concrete, etc. While two different corrosion inhibitors were used in the pilot last year, the second inhibitor was introduced later into the first year which didn’t provide enough time to fully understand how it works in Edmonton. Although this solution and corrosion inhibitor is the same as what is being used across many jurisdictions, we did receive feedback from a chemical engineer that suggested that the impact of this solution can be different in different cities.
Although I did not receive a lot of feedback, the majority of the emails and calls I received suggested that the cost savings the city experienced (approximately $4.2 million) combined with the perceived benefits of snow-free roads in 12 hours did not outweigh the perceived/real costs to private property. While I understand why a decision was made only to rely on studies from other jurisdictions, the possible negative impacts are not fully understood in the Edmonton context which means it’s challenging to point to clear evidence about the success or failure of the pilot.
Saving money while providing better service might seem great but if we are simply downloading the costs of that additional service to individual citizens, it likely isn’t worth it. If we want better road maintenance service, another other option is to increase our budget by adding new equipment and hiring new staff. Recognizing there have been many concerns raised, I would not have supported continuing the pilot for a second year if substantial changes were not made.
There are a number of changes proposed for the pilot this year and while I would encourage you to review the whole report which City Council discussed, I want to highlight a few changes:
- The most significant change is the upgraded corrosion inhibitor. While there was an improved inhibitor used in the second half of the winter, the City staff worked with the manufacturer to develop an even better inhibitor that is supposed to reduce corrosion by 90% instead of 70%. It’s worth noting the solution being used on the Henday uses the inhibitor with the 70% reduction.
- The completion of Edmonton-specific analysis. While using the best practices and research from other cities is usually an excellent idea when considering how to improve service in our city, fully understanding if there are any local factors that can impact the effectiveness or increase the negative impact is important. Because this is only being used on the Henday and QE2 highway, that’s not enough data to help understand if increased use, although still less than Calgary, has a significant negative impact where we are downloading the costs of maintenance to individuals and/or businesses. The studies include a metal corrosion study, a concrete and asphalt study, a vegetation study, and a traffic safety study are requirements of the final year of this pilot. These will be external studies to ensure City Council receives unbiased information before deciding if any permanent changes should be made. We also received a commitment from our Administration that they will work closely with groups like the Urban Development Institute and the Canadian Home Builders Association – Edmonton Region to complete any additional studies they identify. These were groups that raised concerns at a meeting last week but also said that the information that will come from those studies will provide their members with the necessary information to provide feedback based on clear evidence.
- A deeper review of other jurisdictions. For example, how Calgary has been using far more salt/calcium chloride for a number of years should provide us with more information, for example what impact there has been on vehicles and infrastructure. Although we should not rely exclusively on other cities, we should get more detail about the full impact experienced in other cities.
- We were also told during our discussion that Administration learned a lot regarding the application of the solution this year and that going into this next year, they expect to use around 30% less solution than we did this past winter.
The points above are not the only changes proposed and so I would encourage you to review the report to understand everything that will be changing for this year.
As there have been significant changes made, I felt comfortable supporting this pilot for one more year before we update the Snow and Ice Control Policy in 2019. I would not have supported continuing the pilot if nothing changed. Along with the changes listed above and in the report, I wanted to share a few other reasons I decided to support continuing the pilot.
The desire for better snow clearing has been raised regularly over the last five years that I have had the opportunity to serve as a City Councillor. As discussed, there are two ways we can deliver better snow clearing on our roads, sidewalks, and trails: increase the budget or try using different tools and best practices from other winter cities. One of those tools could be increasing the amount of calcium chloride on our roads but at this point, I’m not ready to say this tool is the right solution. The early results are inconclusive and so before I make a final decision, I will get as much information as possible to make the most informed decision possible. Before rushing to increase our budget to provide the better service that people have been requesting, I want to fully examine other options. It can be frustrating to see how often a city will pilot something but in this case, I think a pilot is more appropriate than making a permanent change based on what other winter cities do.
Further to the point about increased service, I have specifically been hearing from seniors, who are not able to drive, about the challenges to navigate our sidewalks and trails in order to go to an appoint, get groceries, visit friends, etc. Our current policy does not create safe sidewalks around key hubs like our seniors centres, bus terminals, etc. As with our roads, we have the same two options to improve service, and being that clearing sidewalks requires different equipment, the cost to increase this service level may be quite substantial. While I think we should absolutely be informed of those costs as part of the policy discussion next summer, I would also like to understand the pros and cost that increasing our salt use will have on our sidewalks and trails.
Overall I’m not pushing to use calcium chloride to the level that we used it this past winter. Before I rule out any particular option, I want solid evidence to explain why that option is being ruled out. I have heard anecdotal evidence in the past year but I believe that we should make decisions using facts and evidence instead of solely our personal experiences. Those individual experiences help inform the overall discussion, but given that we have the opportunity to have an external group study an issue to provide scientific research, we should take advantage of that opportunity to fully understand the impacts. That way when we discuss the policy next summer, we can truly understand if any cost savings and safety improvements outweigh any negative impacts. If those studies show that we are downloading even more costs to individuals and businesses, then the only decision next year should be if we go back to our old policy or if we spend the additional money to improve the service while not continuing the increased use of calcium chloride.
Thanks for taking the time to read through this and if you have any other questions or feedback, please let me know. More information about winter road maintenance can also be found on the City of Edmonton website.
Written by A. Knack.